Ben Is Back
How Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges Faced the Horror of Addiction
The ‘Ben Is Back’ stars on their personal connection to the addiction drama, dealing with dark material, and what it takes to be a movie star and have a family.
Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges are having a moment.
In industry speak, that’s in reference to the career boom, cannily timed to award season, both are respectively experiencing, with Roberts riding rave reviews for her work in the Amazon series Homecoming into her role in Ben Is Back, in which she co-stars with the aforementioned showbiz It Boy.
The drama, about a drug-addicted teenager who turns his family’s life upside down when he unexpectedly returns home from rehab on Christmas Eve, caps off a year for Hedges that started with him supporting two Best Picture nominees he appeared in at the Academy Awards—Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Lady Bird—before leading three buzzy fall dramas—Boy Erased and Mid90s in addition to Ben Is Back—and co-starring with Elaine May and Joan Allen in the Broadway production of Waverly Gallery.
In real time, as they share a sofa in a meeting room at a trendy hotel in SoHo on Hedges’ day off from the play, they are having their own moment, too. Hedges was just 20 when he received his first Oscar nomination last year for his performance in the drama Manchester By the Sea, detonating the résumé explosion he’s experiencing now. It’s nearly the exact same age that Roberts, then 22, received her first Academy nod for the Kleenex-endorsed Steel Magnolias, launching one of the busiest and most storied careers in Hollywood history.
“We’ve never talked about it, but I would love to talk to you about that,” Hedges says, excitedly curling up on the couch and turning towards Roberts, so enthusiastic he practically disappears the room around him. “I would love to hear about your experience over the years and how being a person to the world has affected you.” Roberts does that thing she does so well: clasps his hands in hers, making the connection personal and real, while flashing that million-dollar smile and exaggeratedly joking to defuse the intimacy of the conversation in front of a journalist.
“I’ll tell you everything,” she says laughing.
That the two haven’t engaged in such shop talk doesn’t mean that they aren’t close or friendly. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call them family. When you’re close enough to sit around the Thanksgiving dinner table together, career arcs don’t necessarily come up.
Ben Is Back was written and directed by Peter Hedges, a filmmaker specializing in family drama (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy, Pieces of April) who also happens to be Lucas’s father. The film takes place over a turbulent Christmas Eve. Over the course of the night Ben, despite trying to stay clean, is drawn back into his former circles to settle a debt, and his mother, Holly, is determined to keep by his side through every, increasingly shady step, despite the danger.
Hedges has compared Holly’s determination not to give up on her son to Orpheus, and the idea of loving someone so much you’d go to the underworld to bring them back. He calls Holly the “the most complex, full and fierce mother I had ever imagined.” That meant only someone like Julia Roberts could play her.
When Roberts told her family that she had accepted the role, one of several recent projects in which she played a mother, her 11-year-old son, Henry, asked her why she’s always in movies where someone else is playing her son. That’s when she realized that, if she was going to do Ben Is Back, she was going to have to make it a family affair.
She invited the Hedges men to her house in Malibu for rehearsals, having them stop first at a nearby soccer field to cheer on her 14-year-old son Phinnaeus. Later at the house, Lucas and co-star Kathryn Newton, who plays his sister in Ben Is Back, went surfing with Roberts’ kids while the actress and Peter discussed the movie. “Actually when they were surfing, Peter and I were not working,” Roberts clarifies. “Peter was reworking a scene that we had actually rehearsed, and I was cooking a massive amount of food that was gone so quickly when they got back from the beach.”
Months later, Lucas would spend Thanksgiving with the Oscar-winner’s family.
We ask if this kind of bonding is typical of a Julia Roberts production. “I guess that would depend on the season, if it’s soccer season or Thanksgiving season…” she jokes. But seriously, the time together “served us in the dark, cold night of shooting,” she says, referring to the frigid night shoots in upstate New York in winter. “We had these sunny days to reflect back upon.”
Ben Is Back would mark only the second time that she would go away to shoot without her kids, the first being August: Osage County in 2013. “No way!” Hedges exclaims when he learns this, as Roberts explains that her children are always either with her on location, or she’s filming near their home in California.
“It’s a very hard decision for me to make,” she says. “A lot of math goes into it. A lot of family conversation. So this to me was a way of making that initial push east just more palatable for my entire home life. Not that I’m not completely supported by all four of them entirely. But just to create a space where my kids would understand better where I was going and who I was with.”
The other bit of control Roberts took over the project was in casting Hedges in the first place.
While Peter had naturally thought of his award-nominated actor son when writing a character roughly his son’s age, he had not wanted to assume that Lucas would want the part out of some familial duty—especially since the two had had many previous conversations about how Lucas found the idea of acting in one of his dad’s movies awkward and uncomfortable.
But when Roberts read the script she instinctively imagined Lucas as Ben—“and he was brilliant in my mind,” she laughs—even though he wasn’t attached. She playfully sent Peter photos of herself with with Phinnaeus, who resembles Lucas, to show how well she gets along with young men who have red hair and encourage him to talk with his son about the part.
Hedges says that Roberts’ courting is what “tipped me overboard” in accepting the role. After all, when Julia Roberts asks you to do something, you say yes—a tease to which she turns and flashes a broad, winking grin. The Julia Roberts smile.
The project was a personal one for the Hedges men in ways that go beyond the fact that father was directing son on set. Peter had been inspired to write it based on his family’s own experience with addiction, including his mother’s own battle.
“I think the movie is a reflection of my dad’s passion for triumph in family,” Lucas says. “He’s always had an intense gift in being able to see the innocence and beauty in people who struggle with addiction, because that’s very close to his own story with his family and how he relates to his mother who struggled with it.”
His family’s history was constantly on his mind during the shoot. It’s why he thinks the movie has the potential to be healing, both broadly speaking but also specifically for his family. “I felt like this movie was an opportunity for us as a family to confront something that’s hereditary and that maybe it would be easier going forward for what maybe my kids have to deal with,” he says.
Roberts instinctively grabs Hedges’ hands as he continues, whispering “I love you so much” and garnering a quick giggle from her on-screen son. “In the really dark moments, I could feel my ancestors at my back,” he says. “That felt really special.”
“What’s beautiful about that is that while I love what Lucas is saying and I love what this movie means for Lucas and Peter and the Hedges at large, past and future—because I do believe in that completely—this is a lot of families,” Roberts says. “Almost all of the people in some way are represented in this film, because it’s such a huge issue. I just don’t know that there could be anyone who could sit in a room and say is there anywhere here who could say alcohol abuse, drug abuse, addiction has not touched your life in some way.”
When we asked Hedges prior to the release of Boy Erased this fall if he has the time to live a normal 21-year-old’s life, he laughed before answering earnestly. “I don’t feel as though as I do, but I don’t feel as though I want to live a 21-year-old’s life,” he said. “For the most part, most of the 21-year-olds I know feel like they’re in their own existential crises. I like having a purpose right now. I like working a job. I love purpose.”
The idea of purpose is one that Roberts has given much thought to, especially since winning her Oscar for Erin Brockovich and, more profoundly and on a personal level, becoming a mother. Both Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow devoted significant chunks of recent podcast interviews with Roberts to praising the ways in which they noticed the actress was transformed by motherhood.
A byproduct of that transformation has meant working less than some of her A-list peers. She’s hardly vanished from the industry, by any means, though a litany of “comeback” thinkpieces are written each time she returns to the spotlight, which happens in roughly one film a year at this point.
But while the “she’s back!” narrative is a fallacy, there is marveling to be done over the interesting choices that she’s made, be it a series of supporting roles, like last year’s tearjerker hit Wonder; big character swings, like the Queen in the Snow White comedy Mirror Mirror; or, lately, making the transition to television. Her work in Homecoming hasn’t just earned praise for its subtlety. The fact that Roberts is in it at all surprised many.
It’s not a glamorous role, not so much in terms of it being a dressed-down or uglied-up character, but that it doesn’t scream with the bombast or histrionics that have baited other movie stars to the small screen. Still, it fit perfectly on a resume that’s been purposefully curated. Each role doesn’t only justify time away from Roberts’ family, but also satiates an evolving creative hunger. When it came to working with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail on Homecoming, that meant filming ambitious tracking sequences, and performing 11-page single-take dialogue scenes.
“There’s something really nice there, in this sense of doing my dream job and there is this whole new element of accomplishment,” she said when we talked to her before the series premiered last month.
While promoting Ben Is Back, she’s been asked a lot about the toll of shouldering such a traumatizing story about a mother and son when her own children are approaching the same age that Ben is in the film when he starts grappling with addiction.
“It doesn’t have some tangible impact on my life as a parent,” she says. She brings up the film Secret in Their Eyes that she did in 2015, in which she plays an investigator who discovers that her teenage daughter has been raped, murdered, and left naked and soaked with bleach in a dumpster. “I just remember reading the script for the first time and I thought, well I’m going to have take this girl to lunch.”
She became enchanted with Zoe Graham, the actress who played her daughter, during that lunch. “I realized that it would be like a deal with the devil if I were to any way let this work and my life thoughts hold hands,” she says. “And that entire scene is 100 percent based on the girl who I found in the dumpster, and not any other girl in the world.”
It was the same with Ben Is Back and Hedges. “It was all about Lucas. And I think that’s correct for me.”
She grabs Hedges’ hand again at looks at him in the eyes as she gives it a squeeze. One last time before we all go, another moment.